29
Apr 05

Hi Records show at the Barbican

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If you want to know how I feel about the Hi house band, backing for Al Green and other soul greats in the ’70s, I revere them at length in this article. I was disappointed at the absence of Howard Grimes, the nest best thing to Al Jackson on drums, and Charles Hodges especially – no one else ever played organ like he did, and it didn’t feel at all right with a different sound in there with his brothers Teenie and Leroy. This was, I admit, a bit unfair. Percy Wiggins was the first guest singer, and he’s a really good mainline soul singer, but I wasn’t getting into it. Then he sang the first (a capella) words of one song, and I felt myself tense.

I’ve written some about great moments in music recently. I’d been working on one about the moment after Al Green’s first lines of ‘Love And Happiness’, when Teenie Hodges gets going on guitar. It was when Percy started on this that I knew instantly that this was a make or break moment for my feelings about the gig. Would they retain the perfect simplicity of that, or fuck it up. My hands came together in a prayer position and I was wishing so hard… and Teenie nailed it perfectly, as if it had never been in doubt. I don’t really imagine their playing got better after that, but from then on I was theirs.

I was surprised when Ann Peebles came on next – I had assumed she was headlining – and with two new musicians. She did a couple of fine quiet numbers with them, then the house band returned and she did some classics – with her organist being intensely annoying, gesturing at the Hi musicians as if he was conducting them. They were obviously paying no attention. Peebles looked, I thought, better than she did in the ’70s, which is remarkable for a 58 year old, and sounded great – she’s lost nothing of her strength, range and control. Why the hell wasn’t she top of the bill? I mean, I like Syl Johnson a lot, but could he really top her?

Of course, I’d not seen him live. A minute in, and it was hard to imagine many bills he wouldn’t top. He’s a better singer than I’d grasped, a good harmonica player, a very good guitarist, a terrific mover and dancer (at 67, an astonishing one), great at patter, like stand-up comedian good, and overloaded with charisma. Suddenly it felt like he was in charge, that these people I revere like few others were his band. As impressive and commanding a performance as I’ve seen from a singer since, I should think, Jarvis Cocker a decade ago – though maybe a bit too much of the patter and not enough serious singing at times, but he can get away with it easily.

Before his biggest number, the great ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, he said he’d sign things for people afterwards, then pulled out two CDs and said “But don’t ask me to sign these. They’ve been out for a few years from Ace, and I’ve not seen a dime.” A guy in the audience jumps to his feet and says he’s something or other from Ace, and he could discuss this after the show. “I don’t want a discussion, I want paying.” “We can discuss that after the show…” Cue a list from Syl: the Wu-Tang Clan used this song on one of their records. They paid me good money… And others who’d covered or sampled his songs, labels that had reissued things and so on. I should add that I’ve no idea of the truth of anything there, it’s just what he said.

Anyway, it was a storming and triumphant show, from that key point on, and I felt honoured to see these people playing in the UK for the first time.

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